Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Reviewing Kurzweil’s Latest

Our own Ari Schulman recently reviewed Ray Kurzweil’s latest book How to Create a Mind for The American Conservative. Ari’s review challenges both Kurzweil’s ideas and his aspirations, which are, as is quite often the case in transhumanist fantasies, rather base — virtual sex and so on. Here Ari criticizes Kurzweil’s dismissal of human consciousness:

The fact that Kurzweil ignores or even denies the great mystery of consciousness may help explain why his theory has yet to create a mind. In truth, despite the revelatory suggestion of the book’s title, his theory is only a minor variation on ideas that date back decades, to when Kurzweil used them to build text-recognition systems. And while these techniques have produced many remarkable results in specialized artificial-intelligence tasks, they have yet to create generalized intelligence or creativity, much less sentience or first-person awareness.

Perhaps owing to this failure, Kurzweil spends much of the book suggesting that the features of consciousness he cannot explain — the qualities of the senses and the rest of our felt life and their role in deliberate thought and action — are mostly irrelevant to human cognition. Of course, Kurzweil is only the latest in a long line of theorists whose attempts to describe and replicate human cognition have sidelined the role of first-person awareness, subjective motivations, willful action, creativity, and other aspects of how we actually experience our lives and our decisions.

Read the whole thing here.

Another worthy take on Kurzweil’s book can be found in a review by Edward Feser, the fine philosophical duelist (and dualist) who recently caused a stir for his able defense of Thomas Nagel. Feser’s review of Kurzweil appears in the April 2013 issue of the magazine First Things, where it is, alas, behind a paywall for now. He focuses on Kurzweil’s ignorance of the distinction between “phantasms” (which are closely related to senses) and “concepts” (which are more abstract and universal) — a distinction found in Thomist and Aristotelian thinking about thinking. Here is just a very tiny snippet from Feser:

[Kurzweil’s] critics have pointed out that existing AI systems that implement ... pattern-recognition in fact succeed only within narrow boundaries. A deeper problem, though, is that nothing in these mechanisms goes beyond the formation of phantasms or images. And while a phantasm can have a certain degree of generality, as Kurzweil’s pattern-recognizers do, they lack the true universality and unambiguous content characteristic of concepts and definitive of genuine thought.

I wonder how Kurzweil’s admirers and defenders would respond to Feser’s critique. And I wonder how far Ari and Feser would be willing to concede that the AI project might get someday, notwithstanding the faulty theoretical arguments sometimes made on its behalf. Feser suggests that, instead of How to Create a Mind, Kurzweil’s book might more appropriately be titled “something like How to (Partially) Simulate a (Subhuman) Mind.” What does that mean, practically speaking? Set aside questions of consciousness and internal states; how good will these machines get at mimicking consciousness, intelligence, humanness?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Silent History

Readers with iDevices might be interested to know that the originally serialized novel/app The Silent History is available free today and tomorrow in complete form from the App Store. While some of its more avant garde locational and social aspirations did not end up impressing me very much, the basic story itself, tracking over many decades a cohort of children mysteriously born without the ability to speak, is quite thought-provoking. The story is told through many different voices, with many different axes to grind, some of which will be particularly familiar to those with an interest in enhancement and human redesign. By turns satirical, amusing, shocking and poignant, I have greatly enjoyed it over the past months, and look forward to a quick reread now that it is complete. From early on I was more than satisfied with it having paid whatever its original price was, but you can't beat free.